Original sin and spiritual death

Proponents of original sin uniformly state that we are all born spiritually dead as a result of the sin of Adam. But just what does it mean to be spiritually dead?

The term “spiritual death” is ubiquitous in Christian literature, from a variety of denominations and faith traditions, but the actual definition is elusive. You may already know that there is no verse which has the term “spiritual death” in it in either the Old or New Testaments. A review of popular and scholarly literature doesn’t do much to help us understand the term, as definitions vary widely. After doing a lot of reading, a baseline definition I have found is this: 

Spiritual death is the state of a person as being separated from God due to that person’s sin. 

Isaiah 59.2 is often used as a prooftext for this idea: “Your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God.” It’s interesting that the idea of death (spiritual or otherwise) is absent from this passage. Think about it: the go-to verse for defining spiritual death doesn’t have the words “spiritual” or “death.” Now, separation due to sin is very real, as Isaiah confirms, but referring to this separation as spiritual death seems arbitrary and confusing. (By contrast, Paul seems to be very comfortable just using the term death many, many times with no qualifier at all.)

However, I do think the definition of spiritual death above can be a useful one, in that the definition itself is an accurate description of what happens as a result of our sin, and it echoes the warning found in Genesis 2: sinning results in death. The difficulty arises when we start riffing on the word death, and we begin to move far beyond what we read in that passage from Isaiah.

Here are representative statements I’ve gathered on spiritual death (I don’t bother citing any of these statements because you can find them anywhere):

  • Spiritual death is our natural state prior to accepting Christ as our savior.
  • Humanity is now separated from God by nature.
  • All of us are born spiritually dead, or separated from God. This is because all of us have inherited the sin nature from Adam and Eve. 
  • Adam and Eve died spiritually at the time that they sinned — they became different beings than the ones God had originally created.

We can see from the above list that spiritual death is no longer the result of sinful behavior (as we saw in Isaiah), it has morphed to a natural state inherited from Adam. This is significant: it’s not what we do, it’s what we are.

But it’s not so simple; sometimes the definitions contradict each other. One author says spiritual death is a metaphor, “from the analogy and proportion that it bears to natural death,” while another author says death “is not a figure of speech. Paul means they were absolutely dead.” So is it a metaphor or isn’t it?

Some teachers even claim that Jesus himself died spiritually, as these examples show:

  • Christ was spiritually dead on the Cross while darkness enveloped the Earth for 3 hours.
  • Jesus suffered a separation from the Father when He was on the cross. Separation from God is defined as spiritual death according to Scripture.

Note that last statement, which seems to be referring to the Isaiah passage quoted above, which (as I’ve already pointed out) doesn’t mention either “spiritual” or “death.” And whereas Isaiah tells us that separation is the result of our sin, in the case of Jesus it’s separation without any sin — so now we have removed “sin” from the Isaiah passage, and inserted “spiritual” and “death.”

I think the problem arises simply because of the lack of biblical definition of spiritual death in the first place. Without any restrictions, Christians feel free to define the term in any way they see fit.

And these statements are hardly outliers; you can find them, as I did, with a simple internet search. I’m not hunting around to find the wildest and most controversial statements; these are commonly-held beliefs about spiritual death. However, the confusion and contradictions I’ve cited about spiritual death should give us pause when assuming that it is a clear biblical doctrine. (At this point, I feel the need to pause and reiterate that I affirm our sins have separated us from God, as Isaiah and many other passages attest. By asking questions about this term, I’ve been accused of not believing that all people sin and need a savior. Let me reiterate that Yes, we all sin, and No, no one is righteous.)

Are you ready for more? Here are some other descriptions of spiritual death, this time from Bible commentators who want to use the story of Adam and Eve in the garden as a prooftext for it. However, the descriptions do not match the story, as I’ll explain below. I’ve gathered a sampling of descriptions of a spiritually dead person; read these and ask yourself whether they describe Adam and Eve after they sinned:

  • Dead people can’t do anything, and that is what Paul is talking to us about—the spiritual state of those apart from Christ.
  • The spiritually dead are voluntarily insensible to the great facts of the spiritual world — insensible to God, to truth, and to their own relations to both. 
  • It is a state in which no right moral action takes place.
  • It is a lack of spiritual life, an absence of proper spiritual functioning.
  • We are separated from God, hostile to God, cursed and condemned by God’s law, insensible and ignorant of God’s love.
  • It is a negation of all spiritual, vital acts — that is, of all acts and duties of holy obedience that are acceptable to God, and tend toward enjoying him; a total defect and lack of power for any such acts whatsoever.

The assumption seems to be that Adam and Eve died spiritually the moment they ate the forbidden fruit, but is that what the story actually shows?

Again, these teachers point to Adam and Eve in the garden as examples of those who are spiritually dead. However, is that the case? Is this the picture we have of Adam and Eve in the garden? The claim is that Adam and Eve died spiritually the moment they ate the forbidden fruit, but is that what the story actually shows?

Read the story in Genesis 3. From it, we can see that Adam knew he had sinned (v7), was afraid of God’s wrath (v10), and confessed his sin (v12). He was aware of God’s presence (v8), could hear his voice (v9), and spoke directly to God (v10). Is this the picture of someone who is insensible to God and to truth, who is hostile to God, and who lacks right moral action? Of course not! In fact, if I were to list these characteristics, I bet you’d point out what a good Christian this person is. Check it out:

  • He knew he had sinned
  • He feared God’s wrath
  • He confessed his sin
  • He was aware of God’s presence
  • He could hear God’s voice
  • He spoke directly to God

If one of your Christian friends came up to you one Sunday morning and said that last night she experienced everything in this list, you would no doubt rejoice because of her response to the conviction of the Holy Spirit.

Compare this list to that of the tax collector in the parable Jesus tells starting in Luke 18.10; the tax collector knew he had sinned, he feared God’s wrath, he confessed his sin, and he spoke directly to God. Adam compares pretty favorably to the tax collector, whom we know went home justified. Of course, Adam wasn’t perfect (blaming Eve and even God for his own sin), but that’s also true of regenerate Christians! No one says that this behavior in Christians is an indication of spiritual death. Look again at the supposed characteristics of spiritual death above (hostile to God, ignorant of his love, etc) and see if they match what you see in Genesis 3.

The story of Adam and Eve is powerful on its own; let’s not add elements to it. Adam is not described as hostile to God or ignorant of God’s love and truth. He is not insensible to the great facts of the spiritual world — he’s in Eden, talking with God face to face! What could be more “sensible” of the spiritual world than that?

Defining spiritual death as the state of being separated from God due to our own sin reflects the story in Genesis and is consistent with other biblical passages which speak of sin and death. We should leave it at that.

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